Friday, December 09, 2016

Review of 'Departures'

Nearly didn't go out to watch this one - cold, late, and so on. Very glad I did - very moving, but odd and thought-provoking all at the same time.

A Japanese cellist hears that his orchestra has folded, and moves back to his old home town with his young wife. He scans the papers for jobs, goes to what he thinks is a travel company (it's called 'Departures') and ends up taking a job as a...well, not exactly an undertaker, someone who prepares bodies for funerals. In the Jewish community this is a job done by a voluntary group, in Japan it seems like it's a profession - and one with pariah status, because though the activity is appreciated, the role seems to be despised. His old acquaintances tell him the job demeans him and he should get a proper job. His wife is horrified when she finds out - somehow he's managed not to tell her - and leaves him.

It's an amazing film, about death and loss and mourning. It reminded me all over again how aesthetic everything in Japan seems to be - the rituals associated with preparing the body, which are done with the family present, and very beautiful and dignified. It also made me think about how different are the ways of death across cultures - surely an argument against the idea that there is an unchanging human nature, since the fact of death is common to all cultures, but the way of dealing with it is so different. The Japanese seem to really wallow in the sorrow.

Watched on a cinema screen at Lansdown Film Club.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Review of 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them'

I can't understand who this film is aimed at. It's too silly to appeal to grown-ups, what with all the magic and the J K Rowling words (but why do Muggles have to become No-Majs), but not really suitable for kids either, because there's a bit too much mild romance. I can only assume that the kids who grew up with Harry Potter, and are now in their early 20s, are the target audience, and it's assumed that they are sufficiently brand-loyal to put up with anything set in the Harry Potter world.

The film is over long. The special effects - lots of banging and crashing and flashing - are rather wearing; there's no feeling of building to a climax, it just starts off banging and crashing and carries on. The music is well crafted but wrong too, in that it provides too many climaxes too often. Despite the intensity of what's happening I was checking my watch after half an hour.

It's a shame because it looks great, and there are vague hints that there might have been a better, more interesting and character-driven story. The anti-magic fundamentalist campaigners are more or less wasted. There's some connection between the leading campaigner and the main female character, because we see her in the memories that are extracted as the latter is about to be executed - but I can't explain what it is. There's a child abuse element (the campaigner woman beat the children in her care) but it's not really explored, and there's a creepy girl child that turns out to be of no significance at all, though it's hinted that she is important. And by the way, why make the leading female character - Tina Goldstein - Jewish (Rowling's first ever Jewish character) and then not have her be Jewish in any way at all?

An eloquent demonstration of the need for "art director's cut" 15-minute versions of films, which show all the sets and clothes but doesn't bother with the plot. Lots of films would benefit from that treatment.

Watched at the Everyman Cinema in Muswell Hill.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review of 'Hunt for the Wilderpeople'

One of those 'charming' films about a gradually developing relationship between a curmudgeonly old bloke and a dysfunctional young boy. The boy is placed in the foster care of a couple on an isolated NZ farmhouse, after a bad start he settles down, the foster-mother dies and he and the foster-father disappear into the bush - and are then hunted down by social services, the police, bounty hunters and eventually the army.

It's not quite as charming as the trailer implies, but it was watchable - the more so because of the stunning landscape photography. New Zealand looks amazing - the more so because it never looks pretty. Sam Neil acts well as the curmudgeon, though he's not as dysfunctional in attitude as he ought to be given the character's history and behaviour. Oh, and the film is not suitable for vegetarians.

Social services come off really badly - the woman leading the manhunt is a caricature of all the nasty social workers there ever were, and there is the implication that children in 'care' are allowed to die without much concern or afterthought. New Zealanders - the white ones, anyway - come across as surly, uncommunicative and with unresolved anger issues; I've only been to New Zealand once, from Sydney, and that's exactly how it seemed to me. I've had lots of lovely NZ friends, so sorry if this seems mean - but the whole time I was in the country it felt like a fight was about to break out, and several did.

Obtained via informal distribution and watched on a laptop in bed.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Review of 'I, Daniel Blake'

It's been a week since I watched this - in a special showing at the Vue Cinema in Stroud, at 10.25pm. Apparently it was put on again because the other shows had been sold out, but there were only six other people at this showing. We all watched it in silence and left in silence.

I didn't sleep much afterwards. It's not that the stories depicted in it were a surprise. I've read plenty of similar cases on social media, and sometimes even in The Guardian. Seeing it depicted as part of a film is powerful, though; and it's made more so because the film doesn't present a black and white picture of almost anyone. Most of the bureaucrats at the DWP aren't specially horrible (apart from the 'Sheila' character), and manage to convey that they are trying to do the best they can of an impossible job. The people who provide the young mum with a job in prostitution don't seem to be evil exploitative pimps, and there's no suggestion that they are ripping her off or abusing her. The two chancers next door importing trainers direct from the factory in Shanghai are decent enough, even though they are a bit careless with their rubbish.

It was a good film, with a few light touches despite the nearly-unremitting misery of the subject matter. It depicted the best in people as well as the worst - the way they'll help each other out, given half a chance. It wasn't Hollywood - it didn't offer unreasonable and implausible consolations; in a Hollywood movie Karen, the young mum, would have been motivated to complete her studies so that she could rise out of her class.

And it made me think a lot about what we - and specifically me - could be doing, now, that would help people like Daniel to endure, survive and resist. I'm not doing much, frankly. I was aware that skills that I have that I take for granted - how to fill in a form online, for example, or format a CV in word - would be really useful to some people. I was also moved to look for Claimants Unions, which I remembered from the 1980s. There are still some around, and maybe I ought to be volunteering or helping out there. I've been reading around the 'solidarity economy' and platform co-ops lately, but couldn't help thinking that however successful any of that was, we'd still need a welfare state to compensate for 'brute luck'.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Review of 'Anonymous'

A film about the real author of Shakespeare's plays - the Earl of Oxford in this version. Lovely to look at, but quite confusing in terms of narrative structure, so that by the end I was quite confused as to who was who and whether it mattered. Not helped by the fact that the fashions don't seem to change, so lots of ruffs, wispy beards and long hair - or by the fact that Queen Elizabeth appears throughout the film at different ages (I know it's flashbacks, and I don't need the screen to dissolve to tell me it's a flashback, but I still got muddled). There's a complex structure of two frame-tales as well - we start with Derek Jacobi talking to a theatrical audience in Broadway (we know it's Broadway because there is an establishing shot of him arriving), which is presumably there to tell American audiences that Shakespeare is part of their heritage; and then we see Ben Johnson arrested and tortured to reveal something or other. At the end of the film we return first to Ben Johnson and then to Jacobi - did we really need both of these?

But I did enjoy the film...lots of good acting (I especially liked the creepy, manipulative mediocrity that is Shakespeare, played by Rafe Spall)and dialogue, and great CGI to make C16-17th London, especially the Frost Fair on the Thames scene near the end.

Watched on the screen in the Middle Floor at Springhill, via the DVD player.

Review of 'Tale of Tales'

A stunning-looking Italian film, made in English with English-speaking actors, this is a set of three fairy-tales. They aren't really linked, except in a slightly gratuitous scene at the end, which contributes nothing to the plot of any of them.

This is worth watching for the locations alone, which are all in Italy - mainly in the South. The filming is wonderful, but the plots of all of the stories are very odd. There is far too much in them - too many magical objects and events, too many contrived elements, any one of which would have been enough for a story. It gives the tales a very dreamlike quality, so that the events happen sequentially but don't unfold out of each other in the way that 'realistic' narratives do.

I note that the tales are based on collections of tales by Neapolitan poet and courtier Giambattista Basile: "Pentamerone or Lo cunto de li cunti (Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones)", though I couldn't imagine anyone exposing contemporary children to anything as horrible as these stories. As I watched I remembered 'Our Ancestors', a collection of stories by Italo Calvino - The Baron in the Trees, The Cloven Viscount and The Non-Existent Knight - which had the same sort of dreamlike, implausible quality. Maybe Italian folk-tales are in some way closer to the collective unconscious from which they emerge, unaltered by rational editing to make them flow as stories? I dunno. Any Italian friends or folklorists able to advise?

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill via PC and informal distribution.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Solidarity Economy: An Alternative to Capitalism?

Last week I went to this event – a discussion about the solidarity economy. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Partly in response to the Westminster political situation, where the Labour leadership is weakly held by a left social democrat with a touching faith in the ability of Parliamentary politics to bring about real and lasting social, economic and political change, despite all the historical evidence to the contrary. It seems to me that it’s unlikely that a Corbyn-led Labour Party can win a majority in Parliament; but even if it does, I find it hard to be optimistic that the ability to legislate will translate into actual power. That quote of Gramsci’s about the state being just the forward trench of capitalist power (which unfortunately I can't find at the moment) seems appropriate.

And I’ve also been reading lots of stuff that points in the direction of solidarity economics – Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism, various things by Michel Bauwens, and this rather good digest (Techno-Utopianism, Counterfeit and Real) by Kevin Carson. I’ve had the tiniest dip into Negri and his ideas about ‘Exodus’, which are at once intriguing and semi-incomprehensible – other people’s paraphrases are easier to understand.

 It seems to point in the direction of a future socialism growing within the body of capitalism, just as capitalism grew within the body of “feudal society” until it was ready to take political power. Mason, and Carson, and several others, seem to be arguing that the power of technology (3D-printing, the internet, smartphones, etc.) makes this possible in a way that it hasn’t been before. Maybe building things – specifically, economic entities like co-ops and exchanges and so on – is a better place to put energy, because it they do get built they’ll be there whoever wins the next election and the one after.
The evening was nice enough. There were some cheerful upbeat presentations of nice projects that were doing well, or were just starting out but sounded like they deserved to do well. Community Land Trusts, community benefit companies, and shared-ownership goats, multi-stakeholder co-ops, and so on.

Things that I noted were:



One of the speakers – (Tony Greenham, Director of Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing Programme at the Royal Society of Arts) wondered aloud if it mattered what this fuzzy-edged phenomenon was called. Would ‘solidarity economy’ sound too…left-wing, and put off some people who might be otherwise enthusiastic? Like Transition Town types, for example, who like resilience and localism but are put off by all those clenched fists and red flags?
It was only a passing comment, and it wasn’t at all representative of the tenor of the meeting – other speakers were insistent that this emerging movement was a political thing – but I think it goes to the heart of one of the essential ambiguities in ‘solidarity economy’ and also the heart of my uncertainty about it.

What we call this thing will shape it. ‘Sharing Economy’ and ‘Collaborative Consumption’ are now, I think, irretrievably lost. They now refer to platform capitalism and ‘servitization’, not anything outside or antagonistic to capitalism. If we use another term that’s more palatable for ‘solidarity economy’ then it will be extended and shifted to include other stuff like that. This is similar to the mechanism whereby, if briefly, David Cameron managed to co-opt civil society support groups into a substitute for and assault on the welfare state.

I have a more serious concern than the name, though. I can’t help wondering whether the ‘solidarity economy’ will become a pit-prop for capitalism rather than something that will undermine, grow within and ultimately supersede it. After all, capitalism has always managed to sit next to non-capitalist forms of production. The most glaring example, to which socialist-feminists drew attention, was the way in which the ‘social reproduction of labour’ – getting the workers fed and cleaned and ready to go back to work again – was carried out in the sphere of the household/family, outside the terms of capitalist value creation. There were no wages for housework. Something similar happens in some places (Thailand, for example) with subsistence farming alongside capitalist industry. Workers can grow some food for themselves and thus the wage rate that the market will bear can be lower, because it doesn’t need to cover the full cost of feeding those workers. The relationship between the non-capitalist slave-traders of Africa and the Atlantic economy of capitalist agriculture might be another example.

So the solidarity economy could be more of a sticking-plaster or a safety-valve for capitalism, rather than the seeds of something that will eat it from within. Co-ops and community benefit companies can take over the labour-intensive, low-margin activities that capitalism can’t do all that well or all that profitably – social care, domestic work and ‘tasks’, car-washing without machines. Capitalism can keep high-tech manufacturing, and finance.

Does this really matter, if at least some people get to run their own decently managed employment? Yes, it does. Capitalism inherently makes for a more unequal society, and that makes everyone more miserable. Capitalism thrives and depends on the creation of unmet desires – unhappiness. And its financial model absolutely requires growth without end, which is in principle incompatible with a finite planet and in practice undermining the chances that humanity will ever find a way to leave within the constraints of our environment. We really do need to put an end to it and replace it with something better, not save it from itself.


I think what follows from this is that, as a minimum, solidarity economy activities need to be consciously about something bigger than themselves.  They ought to be located within the fabric and the context of a wider movement for social change that’s about equality, empowerment, democracy and sustainability. Worker-managers in the solidarity-economy organisations ought to know why what they are doing is important, so that they can do the things that matter better. If the wider movement is going to support them, with our wallets and with our campaigns (for example, for something like that Spanish social procurement directive), then we have a right to expect something more than a new generation of small business entrepreneurs.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Review of 'Free State of Jones'

Watched this after giving up on Ghostbusters - quite a contrast. Serious, thoughtful, lots of politics...a film about the class struggle within the Confederacy as some poor farmers, deserters and escaped slaves band together to defend their own rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of survival (there isn't much happiness in this film). Some very bloody battle and field hospital scenes at the beginning, but after that it's mainly quiet and beautiful to look at. Not obvious in the way that a relationship develops between the charismatic poor white and the escaped house slave woman, and most of that is left to our imagination.

A good account of the politics of Reconstruction, including some things I hadn't heard about - like the Union League in the South.

There's a lot of religion, and some themes that I think will resonate differently with Americans - the poor are able to protect themselves against the depredations of the state because they have guns. And our poor black and white heroes are betrayed by both the Confederacy and the Union; though they briefly think of themselves as fighting for the North, and  raise its flag when they take a town, they are let down and realise they can only look to themselves. I think even a right-wing Tea Party type would find much to enjoy in this film, despite its opposition to racism and the KKK.

Review of Ghostbusters (2016)

Gave up watching this because it was so awful. I started with high hopes. I really like Melissa McCarthy - her character in Bridesmaids was enough to persuade me to give this a chance, despite the terrible reviews. I liked the original film (watched it with the kids lots of times), but I wasn't offended by the idea of remaking with a woman-centred cast, as so many of the people who threw shit over the film seemed to have been.

But it was dire - not funny at all. Obvious, contrived, perfunctory - rushing through anything that might have been a plot to get to the big scenes with the special effects (which frankly weren't that good either). Maybe it got better after 40 minutes, but I didn't stay to find out.

Watched in the Middle Floor at Springhill, through the projector and my laptop. Film obtained via an informal distribution network, for which I am grateful - imagine if I had paid to watch this.